Stick to short stories, “Papa”

This is the 2.5-star review I wrote of the tedious A Farewell to Arms on my old Angelfire site in early 2004. I don’t make any apologies for hating Ernest Hemingway and finding his prose beyond Spartan, boring, and flat. I’ve enjoyed his short stories, but that Spartan prose doesn’t work so well when stretched out over 200 pages. I have my opinion just as other people have their opinions.

***

“Thank our Gracious Lord That’s Over,” as it says towards the end of the liner notes to Quad. This book didn’t take too long to read because of the simple writing style, but damn was a lot of it boring and sleep-inducing. Even after it got more interesting in Chapter 30 (out of 41 chapters total), I still felt absolutely nothing for the characters. These characters have about as much depth as a bunch of paper dolls, and the story lacked motivation and plausibility.

But unlike other books which also lacked seeming motivation, like Doctor ZhivágoÁnna Karénina, and Tender Is the Night, this book didn’t have the saving grace of being at all interesting or having likeable characters you cared about. The so-called love stories in those other three books look more plausible in comparison! And they were at least well-written, with good storylines and characters you came to care about, whether you liked them or hated them.

I didn’t feel anything for these characters at any point because they had zero depth or emotions, not even when Henry/Tenente got wounded while eating cheese with his buddies, nor at the end, which is supposed to be sad. At best I felt bad for the baby for about five seconds.

The people who called this book “magnificent” and “tender” were probably just some dead white guys who appreciated “Papa” Hemingway’s chauvinistic views towards women and his minimalistic Spartan writing style. Come on, I wrote more advanced stories and characters in the fourth grade! His vocabulary isn’t more advanced than that of the average third grader, but even a third grader could write a more interesting inspired story.

There’s no life in his boring short sentences, and the characters rarely say more than five to ten words at a time to one another. He’ll write something like “It was raining. It was dark. I was hungry. The train began to move. I drank some more vermouth.” (These people drink like fish, even the pregnant Catherine, though I’ve heard that the characters in the supposedly equally boring The Sun Also Rises drink even more!)

A 13-year-old couple could express their feelings a lot better and in more complex terms than Henry and Catherine! These people are supposed to be in love? Catherine talks like a two-year-old, usually saying something like “Ooh, ooh, I love you, do you love me? Why don’t we get married?” It’s very annoying, and while I still disdain this unrealistic doll, I’m sure Barbie would have more depth to her if she came to life! (Though she would also die if she came to life because of her unhealthy body type.)

I just rolled my eyes when these two announced they were in love on like the first date, and when Catherine was supposed to be going with Henry’s friend Rinaldi. Henry even admits to himself that he didn’t love her at the time yet said he still loved her anyway. Not another AK or DZ! Though at least those other two love stories took longer to develop and get consummated; the principal characters weren’t declaring they loved one another already after meeting for five minutes. Come on, where’s the sexual tension to make it believable?

This might just be my older edition, but there’s the annoying old-fashioned convention of writing things like “some one,” “break through,” “any one,” “to-night,” and “to-morrow.” Come on, nobody under the age of a hundred writes like that anymore! There were also long dashes where curse words were supposed to be (yet they had no problem writing the word “nigger” out when it appeared one time). Intellectual dishonesty; were people really afraid to see swear words written out, or was it due to the Comstock Act?

There were some nice descriptions, though, but this is supposed to be a novel, not a travel book. The descriptions of the geographical surroundings and the way people lived in the Teens were good parts of the book; it wasn’t all like pulling teeth. I also liked the fastest-moving part of the book, in Chapter 30, when Henry runs away from being shot during a major retreat, leaps into a river, and escapes by holding onto a piece of driftwood, then sneaks onto a train leaving the area and tries to disguise his appearance so people won’t think he’s a deserting soldier based on the uniform he’s wearing. But after that it got dull again. Not as dull as the first 200 pages, but still not as exciting and quick either as the pages where he’s escaping. And the book does have historical significance, so I’m not going to totally write it off as uninspired dreck.

I’m in no mood to choke down another Hemingway book anytime soon. His minimalistic prose works great in a short story like “Soldier’s Home” or “Hills Like White Elephants,” but is exceedingly tedious and painful in a long work of literature. If all his other books are said to be just as boring and lacking in development, I really don’t want to read another one so soon.

The saddest thing about this supposedly classic book isn’t the ending, but the fact that I never felt anything for any of the characters, which is what a good writer is supposed to accomplish effortlessly. And the fact that the pace doesn’t pick up till after page 200 also doesn’t do much for this dated book. Maybe it’s true that Hemingway’s books are increasingly being viewed as bad period pieces, not classic literature.

18 thoughts on “Stick to short stories, “Papa”

  1. His simplistic prose aside, Hemingway was a horrible human being and every time I read about the “lost generation” I can’t wait until I get to the part where he blows his brains out. A more ungrateful d-wad never existed, Fitzgerald had more raw talent in his gin-soaked pinkie than Ernie ever possessed. His 4 wives should have been awarded combat pay for putting up with his relentless machismo and incipient selfishness. I have slogged thru a collection of his “best” and all I can say is that it is not good enough to warrant the reputation he has – he is “well and truly” a hopeless hack. I come from a good and warm place, truly, as I say this – it is dark and cool and the cheese is fine.

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  2. of course someone who writes rants like a 14 year old reads books with the insight one would expect from someone of that age-range. The only difference is an almost comical commitment to lazy, post-modern feminism in which you write off a book that you cannot understand (and therefore enjoy) because you found the person who wrote it a misogynist. He was not being “Spartan” for some kind of arbitrary stylistic appeal. It is precisely the juxtaposition of, for example, the Lieutenant Henry enjoying a bite of cheese suddenly contrasted with a bomb landing and blowing his friends to pieces. The events tell you enough themselves; the language doesn’t change, yet the emotion is clear. Wouldn’t it have seen cheesy to say, “I was enjoying cheese, brie to be exact, it had a nice palate, but I prefer cheddar, and then OH MY GOD A FUCKING BOMB LANDED ON US AND THE UTTER EMPTINESS OF EXISTENCE SUDDENLY WAFTED OVER ME!!!!!!! WE ARE ALL EPHEMERAL BEINGS! FANCY WORD FANCY WORD!” ?????? You did not write more “advanced characters” when you were in fourth grade. And besides, who’s to say a story is about advanced characters? There is more to it than that. Catch-22, an extremely good novel, has almost all simple, flat, stereotypical characters and succeeds in telling an entertaining story with a message. I’m sorry you don’t get Hemingway, and you don’t have to apologize for not liking him. I won’t apologize for thinking you’re stupid.

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    • Yes, I actually did write more advanced characters in fourth grade. Were you one of my classmates who read or listened to my stories to say that? And what’s with the opening insult, “rants like a 14 year old”? Based on what, that I don’t worship your fucking Hemingway? You’re probably the type who hits “not helpful” at Amazon because someone dares to disagree with your opinion of a book, even if the review itself points out in educated, logical language why the reviewer disliked the book. I never said people who worship that clown Hemingway are stupid, so what’s with the insult in your closing line? Why take it so personally when someone doesn’t like a writer or book you like? Where did I ever “write off” the book because I happen to be a proud feminist? I pointed out all my reasons for not liking it, none of which were childish or ill-reasoned. I’m sorry if you take a different opinion that personally you have to write a vitriolic attack. Clearly many people share my opinion of Hemingway. Seriously, tell me exactly what part of my review came across as some 14-year-old’s rant. Was it just the fact that I don’t like Hemingway, and pointed out multiple examples of why this supposed classic didn’t move me at all?

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      • What came across as something a 14 year old would write exactly? When you take something like the style and grammar of a writer, and criticize it for being simple, when a humble reader would ask, “why does he write this?” This does not mean simply saying, because he’s stupid or pretentious, but making a serious effort at reading a book. Maybe he doesn’t give you all the information in dialogue? Maybe you have to work hard to understand the characters? In light of saying this, yes, I feel stupid for giving a rash review of your review. And no, I don’t really read reviews on Amazon… I should also add that the dashes you have in place of swears are not Hemingway’s doing, but editorializing on the part of the publishers.

        As for when you wrote off Hemingway’s literary work for being a misogynist in real life, or maybe you felt his character was a misogynist, I’m not sure: ‘The people who called this book “magnificent” and “tender” were probably just some dead white guys who appreciated “Papa” Hemingway’s chauvinistic views towards women and his minimalistic Spartan writing style.’ This seems to me to imply that you think only a “dead white guy” (yeah, there were no smart/emotionally in tune dead white guys) would like it because the main character is an asshole towards women (?).

        Next we’ll see reviews of Homer saying his verse has too many names and epithets, and that the only people who like him only do because they don’t mind his misogyny.

        Again, sorry for the “vitriolic attack.” I didn’t really intend it to be so inflammatory.

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  3. Hey, its a bit late but I had to reply to this. I have to read A Moveable Feast and let me tell you, his memoirs aren’t that much better. He is either writing, eating, walking or having simplistic conversations with himself or others (in my opinion). Sigh, I just want to be done with it.

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  4. I read the start of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ recently and was struck by the pure boringness.. I thought maybe i was missing some point… but is it like that in most of his books, just some ongoing ‘pleasant’ dialogue… ‘tomorrow i will eat a banana’ ‘here take this banana, i have 5 resting on the mantelpiece’ ‘thankyou kind sir but i must wait until tomorrow to get a banana, from my family’ ‘such is the way of the family, boy’ ‘yes…’ etc etc

    or is there something revield underneath.. i can live with boring if it turns out that somehow its actually genius when you just realise something or other and it spins it around..

    but here it just seems odd..

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  5. Until I stumbled upon this article I was ashamed to admit I detest Hemingway’s writing style, but this validates my having to take an aspirin while reading The Sun Also Rises. it felt like reading “see spot run”, and seriously, the drinking bits got old.

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  6. Agreed. There seemed to be such a hullabaloo surrounding Hemingway. When I picked up when of his books, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, I was flabbergasted that a man who wrote such dead and stagnant prose was apotheosised by the literary world. Has he heard of a metaphor? Or an adjective? Isn’t art meant to be about beauty?I know too much purple prose is bad but he takes it a step too far. His writing is as ascetic as a monk. As a lover of figurative and descriptive and rich and nuanced language, like that of Ray Bradbury or Scott Fitzgerald, I hereby pronounce my hatred of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. *knocks down mallet*

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  7. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday—Top Ten Books That Were Hard For Me To Read « Welcome to My Magick Theatre

  8. I must say that Hemingway’s books have not aged well, to say the least. They are filled with disappointing endings, pointless death scenes and dialogue, and various other remarkably amateurish things that writers often advise other writers to never, ever do. I honestly have to wonder if an editor ever even saw them. I know that it might seem like sacrilege to criticize the great Writing God Hemingway as being rather amateurish, but I suspect his reputation as a “Writing God” was formed in another time, under another set of values, which have long since gone away. I have seen many books far better-written than Hemingway’s from a dramatic point of view, and even just in terms of good writing.

    My reaction to Hemingway is very like that of Bradley Cooper, in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper reads to the end of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell To Arms, and freaks out. The reason? (Spoilers!) The wife of the main character in A Farewell To Arms just DIES for no apparent reason, leaving her man bereft and alone, and very very sad – and after an entire book of the man attempting to find his woman, overcoming enormous obstacles, until (seemingly) finally achieving victory and happiness! Pointless, cliched, and amateurish.

    I have seen writers such as Stephen King – together with so many different writing instructors – advise other writers to never, ever have the main character fail entirely to achieve his/her goals by the end of a long novel. Readers do not to stick with a main character through a 200 or 300 page book (or longer), just to see him/her struggle, struggle, struggle, and then suddenly fail to triumph at the end. It’s the equivalent of seeing a hero struggle brilliantly against the bad guys for a long, involved epic, only to have the hero fail completely at the very last moment, and the bad guys win. Yech. What an ugly ending. Whatever Hemingway’s ultimate point in writing such an ending, dramatically, it doesn’t work. Readers tend to feel cheated by having the main character fail completely; they feel frustrated and let down, as does Cooper in the movie – he throws the book out a window – and most of Hemingway’s books seem to have similarly amateurish and unsatisfying endings in them.

    In Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (more spoilers!) the main character, Jordan, fails to escape from an ambush scene during World War Two, and, wounded, spends the last pages of the book gasping out his final breaths, waiting for the enemy to arrive and kill him. No point, no victory, no triumph – just pointless death. And after a whole book of difficult, heroic struggle, too. This is fantastically unsatisfying, and actually made me quite angry as a reader at Hemingway for wasting my time and for cheating me. Having a main character die at the end of a long novel is another huge literary no-no, and it also tends to make readers feel cheated and frustrated. Unless the death is done very, very well, as is Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter, writers should not kill main characters at a novel’s end – and Jordan’s death is not anywhere NEAR as satisfying and well-done as Dumbledore’s.

    And in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake, spends a great deal of the book pursuing a girl named Brett, who in the end just decides arbitrarily to have a relationship with Mike, another rival character – and Jake and Brett spend the final pages of the book in a taxi, discussing “what might have been.” Another disgusting, pointless ending, where the difficulties are not overcome, and it all just ends because it ends. This no doubt prompted one reviewer at the time to say of the book that it “begins nowhere and ends in nothing.” I must say I heartily agree.

    Why did Hemingway frequently write endings that other writers tend to describe as amateurish and cliched? My suspicion is that he was trying to be all “literary” and “serious.” It’s almost as though he’s saying, “Look at how most of my main characters fail in the end! I must indeed be a very Serious Writer, who takes Literature VERY Seriously, and who is trying to make a very Profound STATEMENT. Life and Death, wow! Meaning and meaninglessness, ooh!”

    I personally think it’s just plain bad writing. But hey.

    Hemingway’s books also tend to be remarkably boring and dull, no doubt arising from his amateurish grasp of drama, as demonstrated by his hackneyed bad endings. He does little to satisfy the reader in most of his books, in their middles OR at their ends, preferring to remain unspokenly Profound, and (as I said earlier) it doesn’t work. Writers can be as profound as they want, but if they don’t have a dramatically interesting story to tell, it really doesn’t matter. As Stephen King says, most readers just want a good story, something to get lost in – and I think most people today find it very, very difficult to get lost in Hemingway’s writing. I don’t see any major movies being made of his books today, as there are (for example) for J.R.R. Tolkien – whom I consider to be a vastly superior writer to Hemingway. The reason seems to be that Hemingway’s books are, for the most part, not very interesting or dramatic, and are often awkwardly written and amateurish in their endings. At least Frodo Baggins destroys the Ring in The Lord Of The Rings; most of Hemingway’s characters just seem to die or fail at life (or both). I really don’t see blockbuster material here, or even very good writing.

    As for Hemingway’s “short” sentences, I have to say that most of them are not really all that short. H. G. Wells, for example, in his masterpiece “The Time Machine,” uses much, much shorter sentences than Hemingway tends to – and “The Time Machine” was published in 1895, far earlier than Hemingway, and is a much more interesting and well-written read than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

    Sometime a writer’s work just ages badly – and I think it’s time for a major re-evaluation of Hemingway’s books in general. The best-selling author during Hemingway’s time was not Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Salinger – it was Edgar Rice Burroughs, the inventor of Tarzan, which really says something, I think – Hemingway never created any characters as deep, memorable or unique as Tarzan; every school-child has heard of Tarzan. And reading Burrough’s actual books, it is very clear that Tarzan himself is an absolutely remarkable character; he doesn’t just stay in the jungle like in the movies; he becomes an English Lord, and a soldier, and distinguished himself by fighting in World War Two. Way better than Hemingway’s war stories. Even Hemingway’s CHARACTERS aren’t all that terribly great or compelling, and I think it’s about time he shouldered some criticism for that too.

    In summary, I find Hemingway to be a rank amateur writer, about whom I cannot understand why various “literary” people frequently make so much fuss – maybe they just like dull, uninteresting stories with cliched endings. I think much of his reputation as a “Writing God” is thoroughly undeserved, and should in fact be revoked. He doesn’t challenge me intellectually or dramatically; his badly-written stories mostly just frustrate me and annoy me, as they did Bradley Cooper – and as I think they do most people with any real experience with more expertly-written stories. Now that I’ve actually READ most of Hemingway’s books – most recently The Old Man And The Sea – I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is Hemingway so famous? I think it’s just an accident, really. I think he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and for no other reason. Editors frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous, and another does not. If it happens, then it happens. I think Hemingway is just an overall bad writer who got very, very lucky – and I think he has been unfairly held up for years before the rest of us as what a writer SHOULD be, despite his rather boring stories, unmemorable characters, and amateurish endings.

    In the words of Bradley Cooper, “No, no, I’m not going to apologize to you; ERNEST HEMINGWAY needs to apologize, because THAT’S who’s at fault here. That’s who’s to blame.”

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